23 NIGHTS EARLIER, MAMMOTH LAKES
“What’s this?” Sookie asked, looking at the wrapped package on the coffee table. A fire was roaring in the hearth, thanks to Eric, and she was snacking on some cut fruit.
“A gift of sorts,” Eric responded with a smirk, “for you.”
“Of sorts?” she asked skeptically.
She chuckled and reached for the package. “Shall I?” she asked, putting her fruit on the coffee table.
“Mmmm,” he sounding in affirmation.
She ripped into the paper. “A book,” she commented, turning the volume over in her hands. She looked at the spine. “The Art of War by Sun Tzu. How romantic,” she added wryly, batting her eyes.
He reached over to tickle her.
She giggled and squirmed away from his marauding fingers.
“This book is even more ancient than you—isn’t it?” she teased, earning her another round of tickling. Once he thought she’d had enough, they both became more serious.
“I first read it long before the 1700s, when it was translated into French. Godric and I traveled through parts of China in the 1300s. It was a culture not very open to outsiders, especially uncommonly tall, blond ones,” he grinned, “but we were creative in our travels.”
“I bet you were,” she laughed, as she opened the book.
“Its teachings have saved my life as many times as my father’s teachings—and Godric’s teachings,” Eric informed. “I’ve found that—as I’ve been trying to figure out how to defeat Russell—I’ve been thinking of this text more and more. And I want you to know what I’m thinking.” He paused and stroked her cheek lightly—affectionately. “Since we have bonded in the vampire way . . . ,” he started, but then stopped. “No. It was before that. Since I accepted the fairy bond you gifted me with, I have been happier than I’ve ever been during my thousand years.” He hesitated for a moment. “I have seen so much, experienced so much. But I find that I want to experience all things anew—as this new man that you have helped to form.”
Sookie smiled at her mate and placed her hand onto his cheek. “I’m happier than I’ve ever been before, too, Eric.”
“I know,” he smiled, placing his hand softly over her heart. He leaned forward and touched his lips to hers just as softly.
“Mmmm,” she sounded contently as she shifted her body on the couch in order to better embrace her mate.
He moved as well, bringing their bodies closer. They wore only robes, and—having the same idea—they both brought their hands to each other’s shoulders and pushed the garments out of their way.
The book was put aside for a while—as were all thoughts of war.
Sookie slipped out of the maid’s uniform and into bed with her husband, her pledged, her fiancé, her bonded, her lover, and her closest friend.
Her partner. Her soul mate.
But not her everything.
She smiled a little. Her talk with Leonie and her visit with Tara and Alcide had reminded Sookie that she and Eric did not live in a bubble—despite the way it had sometimes seemed when they were on the run from Russell. But that wasn’t a bad thing. Yes—Eric was now the center of her life in a profound way, but she had discovered that she was right next to him in that center.
However, the center wasn’t the whole. She’d learned that, in addition to her mate, she could have family and friends who accepted her without reservations. And—now that she was comfortable with who she was—she would never again accept relationships based upon what she was.
She rested against Eric’s broad chest.
“My spot,” she whispered as she marveled for the millionth time about how well they fitted with each other. “One of my spots,” she corrected with a chuckle, for—in truth—being next to her vampire in any way offered a little slice of physical perfection.
And perfection for their very souls too—as their bonds celebrated their proximity. Even as he slept.
She closed her eyes and thought about what she’d learned during the past hour.
Number one: Russell’s Alpha, Dane, was extremely efficient and tactical. And he was well-trusted by Russell. Instead of bringing in all of his available “army” in one mass, Dane planned to have about twenty of them enter the hotel two hours before the intended attack—on the pretense that the Fellowship of the Sun was making threats to attack vampire-friendly businesses and that a vampire summit would make the perfect target. With the picketers outside, the story wouldn’t be doubted—at least not by humans or the very safety-conscious owner of the hotel.
Sookie had read from Dane’s mind that Russell now had a force of fifty Weres outside the hotel—in addition to the ten who were assigned to his immediate circle. However, the twenty “bomb squad” members were unknown to most of the others. Victor Madden had arranged for that group to have equipment and identification that matched the actual bomb squad in Rhodes.
Russell’s new recruits were mostly ex-military or ex-mercenary, and—though Russell had brought them together using the lure of his blood—it was clear from Dane’s head that there were strict rules in place for them about how much vampire blood anyone could take. Apparently, both Russell and Dane wanted to weed out the less desirables from the pre-existing pack and replace them with stronger stock.
And that brought Sookie to the second thing she’d learned; Russell thought of most of the Weres in his “old” pack as expendable: cannon fodder. Their main goal was to storm the hotel and cause chaos. And—if they died in the process—that would actually be seen as convenient, given the fact that most of them were so addicted to V that they couldn’t function well without it.
Or with it—it seemed.
From Dane’s thoughts, Sookie had learned that he felt like Debbie Pelt should be one of the first weeds pulled. However, disturbingly, after Rhodes, Russell planned to “get Debbie clean” and use her as a breeder. Again, Sookie almost felt sorry for the woman—almost. After all, spending time in her head had made Sookie feel downright dirty!
Indeed, from Debbie’s thoughts, Sookie had learned that she was even crazier than before—something that she would have thought impossible. Indeed, Debbie was addicted to V to the point that it was constantly on her mind. She took it as soon as she woke up—and as many times during the day as possible; however, she could never seem to get enough to feel “okay” unless she took Russell’s blood.
And the ancient seemed very willing to give it to her. Like Dane, Sookie couldn’t help but wonder why Russell bothered with Debbie at all, but—knowing the sadistic king—it was likely because he found the crazy Were entertaining. Russell also liked using people. And he enjoyed sycophants, and Debbie was certainly one of those. Indeed, maybe he wanted to keep her around because he enjoyed watching people self-destruct, and Debbie’s self-destruction was looking to be epic.
Thirdly, Sookie had been able to learn where Russell’s “old” pack intended to enter the building. A dozen of them would come in through a loading dock at the north of the building, while the others would be entering through the main lobby. The “bomb squad” was to back them up and “finish their work,” but only if needed.
Fourth, from one of the humans lingering in the lobby, Sookie had confirmed that the threat from the Fellowship of the Sun was very, very real—and, more importantly, she’d learned that Dane and his people knew nothing about the realness of it.
By contrast, she’d learned about the Fellowship threat not long after she and Eric had arrived at the hotel. So many thoughts swirling with hate had—naturally—garnered her interest. Ironically, the radical group’s bombs had become her and Eric’s failsafe plan.
Sookie opened her eyes and let them adjust to the limited light in the room. The special windows were made out of a material that was virtually unbreakable. And it darkened when there was sunlight. However, the glass did let in a little light, just enough for Sookie to make out the objects in the room and her beloved vampire, glowing slightly next to her.
He always glowed—both from the outside and from the inside. At least to Sookie.
In truth, she’d always found it ironic that terrorists like the members of the Fellowship of the Sun called vampires creatures of darkness, for all vampires glowed a little. Human eyes just couldn’t pick that up.
“It’s the humans that don’t naturally put off a light,” Sookie whispered into the quiet room.
Of course, Sookie knew that dark souls existed among all types of creatures. And none were darker than the one they were getting ready to face.
“Russell,” she whispered, even as she caressed Eric’s chest. He wouldn’t be able to feel her touch on a conscious level, but she could feel their bonds awake and alive in him. It was the one thing she’d not yet told anyone about their bonds—not even her mate. However, she couldn’t fully answer why she’d chosen not to say anything to Eric about it.
Maybe it was because of awe. She had first “felt” Eric this way—so “alive” for lack of a better word—the day after they’d learned that he was part fairy. Since then, he had accepted that fact as he did most other things—with practicality. He’d seen the use of his fairy gift in keeping himself strong. But Sookie knew that he’d yet to accept that his new family was the same as hers in many ways. The Claudes were distant cousins to both of them, though through different bloodlines. And the woman whom she really was beginning to think of as a maternal figure, Leonie, was actually Eric’s closest remaining blood relative in a way.
She had a feeling that Eric was waiting to embrace this “new” family until after they were done with their fight with Russell. And Sookie couldn’t fault her husband for that. After all, she, more than anyone else, knew him. Despite the fact that he’d opened himself up to her, he didn’t “do” feelings particularly well, and he’d been bombarded by them lately.
She certainly planned to tell him about his somewhat altered day-state when the time was right, but she’d become wise enough about her husband during their relatively short amount of time together to know that it wasn’t yet that time.
She chuckled. “Maybe I’m the one being highhanded now.”
As she snuggled back against the body of her vampire, she noticed the book on the nightstand.
“The Art of War,” she whispered.
She’d practically memorized the volume during the previous weeks. Eric had been right about it offering sound advice—even millennia after it had been conceived.
She closed her eyes and recited one of the longer passages that she’d committed to memory:
If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.
Sookie smiled a little. It seemed that everyone around her was a student of Sun Tzu: Eric, Octavia, Duncan, Leonie, Klymene, Brady, Maggie. Even the Ancient Pythoness herself.
“‘If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him,'” she whispered, even as she thought of her mate’s almost-constant planning during the previous month. Eric had literally climbed into Russell’s head better than any telepath might have done. He’d imagined his enemy’s every move, and then he’d countered each move with a plan, a back-up plan, and a back-up to the back-up plan.
“‘If he is of superior strength, evade him,'” she whispered next. “Evade,” she repeated a little louder, closing her eyes more tightly. She and Eric had done just that for months, but running and hiding was not in the DNA of either of them. Still, Sookie had learned that evasion was much different than hiding. It could mean avoiding attack or being ready to fight most efficiently when an attack came.
The Masquerade was the perfect opportunity for her and Eric to blend into the crowd until the “right” moment. They would evade, and then they would attack Russell together—with all that they were.
“‘If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him,'” Sookie recited. She nodded her head at that line. Indeed—Russell was temperamental. And Bill was to be the one to create his irritation. If they were lucky, Bill would kill Hallow, Russell’s prized witch. Then, he would tell his master that the witch had betrayed him with his enemy. Yes—Russell would be irritated. Not only would he learn that one of his people had betrayed him, but he would also be thrown off his game with the notion that Eric was near—and manipulating Russell’s own people.
“And I’m the wild card,” Sookie said to herself. “Bill will tell Russell that I’m alive. But Russell will be skeptical.”
She scoffed. Bill had been so easy to manipulate. “‘Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant,'” she repeated. Bill was the poster boy of arrogance.
Her thoughts went back to Russell. “‘If he is taking his ease, give him no rest,'” she said, knowing that—within a few hours—Russell would be looking over his shoulder, wondering if Eric—or another enemy—was behind every masked man that he saw at the Masquerade.
“‘If his forces are united, separate them,'” she recited. “‘If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them.'” Sookie knew that as soon as Bill killed Hallow, he’d go to Russell for “help.” And when Russell heard Bill’s tale, he’d begin to doubt Bill’s loyalty—as well as the loyalty of others who were close to him.
Or—he’d doubt Bill’s intelligence. Either way, Bill was screwed!
Still, Eric and she were confident that Russell would remain arrogant about his plans—even in the face of their unwinding. They were counting on Russell’s stubborn belief that Eric was no match for him—that nobody was.
“‘Attack him where he is unprepared,'” Sookie whispered, “‘appear where you are not expected.'”
Eric was wanted by the Authority. Russell wouldn’t doubt for a moment that Eric might be stalking him, but the monarch would discount Eric’s ability to succeed. And—in truth—he would doubt that Eric would show up in a room full of Authority members. Ironically, his doubt would rise even further after Bill told him that Roman and Eric were working together!
More importantly, Russell would never expect that the Authority members would be working under Eric’s command.
“‘So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong, and strike at what is weak,'” Sookie said, thinking of another part of the Art of War, the first part that she and Eric had discussed after her initial reading of the text.
21 NIGHTS EARLIER
“Bill,” Sookie said as soon as Eric woke up from his day rest. Her eyes were animated and she looked anxious, but the vampire could feel no fear in her. What he felt was more like excitement—and pride.
Still, the name of one of his enemies—especially the name of that one—elicited a growl from the vampire, and he couldn’t help himself from going on alert, using all of his superior senses to assess whether they were alone in the cabin.
Sookie smiled at her mate and caressed his cheek lightly. She knew him well enough to know exactly what he was doing and to appreciate his urge to make sure that they were safe.
“We’re all alone,” she assured, even as his senses brought him to the same conclusion. “Sorry,” she added. “I didn’t mean to wake you up quite that way.”
Seeing the light in her eyes, the Viking chuckled. “I will admit that hearing Compton’s name upon first rising does put a bad taste into one’s mouth.”
“Mmm,” she flirted, “wanna put a better taste in there?”
In the next second, the vampire had her on her back beneath him. She giggled.
“Now that’s an offer I cannot refuse,” he purred, nibbling lightly on her neck.
“Eric,” Sookie sighed, stretching out her neck to meet his nips.
“You test my control, woman,” he growled playfully.
“You don’t need your control with me,” she teased.
He sobered immediately, his expression serious. “Of course I do! With you more than any other.”
“Even now—you’re afraid you’d hurt me?” she asked.
Looking to the side—and looking a little ashamed—he nodded.
“Eric,” she sighed, pulling his body toward hers—taking his weight upon herself. “I know you would never hurt me,” she said with certainty.
“You cannot know that,” he responded, looking back into her brown, earthy eyes, his own like the sky above them.
She considered for a moment. “You’re right. But I have faith that our love will survive any unintentional hurt—don’t you?”
After a moment, he nodded in affirmation.
“Don’t hold back so much,” she smiled up at him. “I’m not as fragile as one might think.”
He smiled, but it was tempered with concern. “I worry for you, min kära.
“And I worry for you,” she replied raising herself up to kiss his chest. And then his neck. And then his lips.
In a flash, he was on his back and she was straddling him.
“Do your worst,” Eric said caddishly, having regained his playfulness.
She proceeded to contradict him, doing her best instead.
“So Bill,” Sookie said after they’d exhausted themselves with lovemaking.
Eric groaned. “Not him again.”
She giggled. “Not really him—just what he is,” she clarified, raising herself onto her elbow.
“What he is?” Eric asked.
“Russell’s weakest link,” Sookie said excitedly. “It’s in The Art of War. ‘So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong, and strike at what is weak,'” she recited.
Eric was silent for a few moments. “How should we strike at Bill?”
“We use me,” Sookie said confidently.
Eric closed his eyes and pulled her close. “I was afraid you might say that.”
A/N: As I have said before, I didn’t want to wait too long—following Eric/Sookie’s wedding/bonding—to get them to Rhodes, but I did want to share significant snippets of that time in flashbacks. I hope that you aren’t finding them too annoying. I thought it was important to show that Sookie was truly a part of the planning for the battle. I also think that it’s significant that this Eric doesn’t talk down to her or even tell her how things need to be. Instead, she gives her a book so that she can learn on her own. And, of course, we already know that he listened to her plan to take advantage of the weakest link: Bill. And we see her confidence in her reconnaissance.
Many thanks to Seph and Kleannhouse. I love all of Seph’s work, but I am particularly fond of what she did for this chapter’s banner!